Yesterday, Jonathan Martin published a piece called: McCain prescient on Russia?
"When violence broke out in the Caucasus on Friday morning, John McCain quickly issued a statement that was far more strident toward the Russians than that of President Bush, Barack Obama and much of the West.
But, as Russian warplanes pounded Georgian targets far beyond South Ossetia this weekend, Bush, Obama and others have moved closer to McCain's initial position.
It has been a rough few weeks for McCain on the foreign policy front — paging Dr. Maliki — but he appears to have been ahead of the curve in his assessment that Moscow was the bad actor here."
This idea has been taken up by a lot of right-wing blogs. As far as I can tell, there are two basic versions of it.
First, Obama has changed his position, while McCain got it right at the outset:
"Now that he's had time to crib from McCain's paper, Obama has released a new statement that sounds a little more like someone who knows what the hell they are talking about and not some inexperienced 'citizen of the world'."
It's worth remembering when, exactly, Obama's and McCain's initial statements were issued: Friday morning. (Obama's doesn't give times -- McCain's is from 10:52am on Friday -- but this post by Ben Smith, which went up at 12:13pm on Friday, references both statements.) As of Friday morning, after some provocation that was probably Russian, Georgia had launched an assault on South Ossetia, in the course of which it flattened a city, and Russia was sending tanks and troops in in response. At that point, it was not at all clear that one side was more to blame than the other, though plainly both were in different ways at fault. Obama's and McCain's later statements were issued after a number of very significant later developments: Russia's bombing uncontested parts of Georgia, its sending troops into Abkhazia, etc. By this point, it had become clear that whatever Georgia had done initially, Russia's response had gone way beyond protecting its peacekeepers, repelling the Georgian attack, or anything for which a remotely colorable case might be made.
When things change, sometimes your view of them changes as well. This is not a sign of uncertainty, flip-flopping, or anything else. It's why it would have been a mistake to condemn Russian aggression in Georgia a week ago. John McCain is fond of reminding us that our Iraq policy should be responsive to facts on the ground. That doesn't just go for Iraq.
The second version is that even if Obama's change over time was responsive to changes in what was actually happening, John McCain should get points for seeing what Russia was up to first, and calling them on it. Ben Smith:
"McCain, though, went with his instinct and with a sense of moral clarity that seems to have been borne out by Russia's widening campaign."
Or, in the words of the redoubtable Ace:
"Apparently someone looked it up and told Obama whose side we are on."
To think about the merits of this version, I think we need to ask a couple of questions. First, was McCain's statement reasonable given what we knew on Friday morning? I think it was not. Second, is there any explanation other than prescience for McCain's having made it? Here I'll just quote Daniel Larison:
"So now McCain is trying to claim that he foresaw what Russia is currently doing in Georgia, when the only reason McCain “knew” what Russia would do is that he always assumes that Russians have the very worst motives and goals and then declares himself prescient when Russia does something objectionable. At least Smith’s use of the word instinct is correct–McCain is viscerally opposed to Russia, and so instinctively lurches to whatever the anti-Russian position is on any given issue."
Moreover: if we're going to talk about McCain's prescience, there's no obvious reason to consider only statements he made starting last Friday. It's worth noting that McCain supported allowing Georgia into NATO last February:
"Georgia and Ukraine have expressed their desire for a NATO Membership Action Plan. We should offer it to them at the summit."
"Whether Ukraine and Georgia ultimately join NATO will be a decision for the members of the alliance and the citizens of those countries, after a period of open and democratic debate. But they should receive our help and encouragement as they continue to develop ties to Atlantic and European institutions."
It's hard to overstate what a bad idea I think it would be to offer NATO membership to Georgia at this time. Allowing a country to join NATO isn't just some random 'screw you' gesture to Russia. It's entering into a military alliance, whereby we construe an attack on that country as if it were an attack on us. It means accepting a binding commitment to send our army to fight and die for that country. And we should never, ever enter into such a commitment lightly.
I supported expanding NATO to include Eastern European countries. I wanted to make that commitment to them, to ensure that the Iron Curtain would never again fall with them on the wrong side. But I think it would be madness to take the same view of Georgia. For one thing, if we're going to enter into a military alliance with some country, that country should not have ongoing territorial disputes with Russia. If it does, then unless we are willing to go to war with Russia over those territorial disputes, we have no business entering into a military alliance with that country. For another, that country should have a basically reasonable government -- the sort of government that would not do something completely stupid, like attacking a city garrisoned by the Russians. Moreover, its political system should give us confidence that this reasonable government is not a fluke.
Georgia fails on both counts. Consider this, from James Traub in the NYT:
"It’s a pretty safe bet that Georgia and Abkhazia will not resolve their conflict on their own. Both breakaway regions are quite willing to live with the Russian-enforced status quo, but even relatively moderate Georgian officials consider that status quo utterly unacceptable. When I asked Temuri Yacobashvili, a cultivated man who is one of the country’s leading art patrons, why Georgia couldn’t focus on the threat from Russia and let the Abkhaz have their de facto state, he said, “These are not two different things, because it’s not amputating hand, it’s amputating head, or heart. No Georgian president could survive if he gave up on Abkhazia.” And, he added, “if the international community by its inaction will not leave any other option for Georgia, then we have to make decision.”
If the West, that is, won’t induce Russia to stop using the border region as a pawn, Georgia will be left with no choice save war. And how will the West do that? Mr. Saakashvili suggests sanctions, like travel bans, on individual Russian leaders. When I posed the same question to Giga Bokeria, another confidante who is deputy minister for foreign affairs, he said, “If Russia ceases to be an empire.” These are not serious answers."
Sorry: those are answers that, to my mind, just disqualify a country from military alliance with the US. If entering a military alliance with Georgia means getting into a shooting war with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, then you'd have to be crazy to get into that alliance.
But John McCain thought we should do that crazy thing. Imagine what this crisis would look like if he had had his way: if Georgia was not just a friend, but a country with which we had entered into a formal alliance, and to whose defense we had pledged ourselves.
But, one might ask, would Russia have invaded Georgia if it had been a member of NATO? There's no way to know. Personally, though, I'd rather not take that gamble.
One other point is also worth noting. If Georgia had been allowed to enter NATO, and if we and other NATO members were not absolutely committed to defending Georgia in a situation like this, then that would have been the end of NATO as a credible alliance. Even if we were absolutely committed to defending Georgia in a situation like this, NATO would have been finished as a credible alliance if other countries didn't believe that we were. And I'd rather not take that gamble either.
If John McCain wants to make this election turn on his Russia policy, that's a debate Obama should welcome. Because now the real risks he has been willing to expose us to are as clear as they could be.